Friday, May 4, 2012

Author Blogging 101: Widgets, Sidebars,and You

by Joel Friedlander
At some point in the mythic past, soon after blogging itself was invented, some enterprising web designer married the blog to a sidebar.

Sidebars—the narrow vertical area next to the text of a blog, on one or both sides of the text column—seem to be intrinsic to blogs.

Over the years, fashions in sidebars change like the length of women’s hemlines. Some years lots of bloggers have only one sidebar. Other years, the 2-sidebar look is in.

When I started blogging, my original design had one sidebar on the right. Now I’ve got sidebars on both sides.

These sidebars seem to be like a “junk drawer” or “utility closet” in some odd way. Everything you don’t know what else to do with gets thrown in there, and pretty soon you’ve got a right good mess on your hands.

Don’t get me wrong, part of the fun of blogging for a lot of people is being able to show their passions, their affiliations, and their activity.

Just from looking at the sidebars, you get a feeling for the blogger and what engages her, and you also sometimes get a feeling of what her refrigerator looks like, too.

Before you can make good use of your sidebars, here are a few terms we’ll be using to discuss this area of your blog:

Widget—A WordPress feature that allows you to drop a piece of HTML code into a special box in the WordPress interface. Once you save it, magically, a box or badge or list of posts will appear. These are widgets and you can get access to them on WordPress blogs through the “appearance” menu in your dashboard.

• Badge—A graphic that indicates an award, or membership in a group or network. These badges are usually displayed by widgets in the sidebar, and typically contain a link to another site.

Display Ad—Also a graphic placed in a widget to show in your sidebar, with a link to the advertiser’s site. There’s no real difference between ads, badges and any other graphic you put in a widget to display on your sidebar.

Feed—Any kind of automatically syndicated posts. For instance, every time you publish a new post to your blog, it’s added to your blog’s feed. You’ll frequently see Twitter posts in a sidebar widget, and they come from your Twitter account’s feed, and so on.

The Many Roles of Blog Sidebars

There are lots of things you can do with the sidebars on your blog. Some of these uses are intended as community building, since they will attract people with similar interests, or as evidence that your blog is worth reading.

Another use is “social proof,” and it can be a powerful motivator. If you show the number of people who subscribe to your blog, for instance, it can have an effect on people browsing your site. A large number suggests that a lot of other people find your content interesting. A small number might be “negative social proof,” implying that not many people were moved to want to be on your subscriber list.

This is a pretty good reason to hold off on some of these sidebar items until you’ve established yourself well enough to show browsers that you’re the real deal.

Here are some of the things you’ll find in bloggers’ sidebars:

Memberships—Badge or graphic that shows you belong to a network or group of some kind.
Awards—Badges issued by whoever gives out the awards, like Alltop or AdAge.
Counters—Show how many followers, likes, or subscribers you have, these widgets typically update in real time.
Opt in form—bloggers use these to invite people to join their email list, and the forms are usually provided by the email company you use to maintain your lists.
Recent/popular posts—another common widget that can keep readers on your site longer by displaying links to some of your best content.
Social media activity—widgets that display your Twitter feed are particularly popular.
eCommerce—if you have a product for sale, showing it and linking to a sales page is a natural use of your sidebar.
Internal links—if you have special pages on your blog, like a big resource list or contest you run regularly, you can link to them from your sidebar, making sure that the link shows up on every page of your blog.
Surveys/polls—there are widgets that will allow you to run a real poll, and change the poll often, from your sidebar.
Video—many bloggers have a “welcome” video, and this is ideally placed in your sidebar.
Pay-per-click ads—millions of bloggers make money from services like Google’s AdSense, and most of those ads go into a widget on your sidebar.
Blog roll—a common feature of blogs from the beginning of blogging, most bloggers run a list of favorite blogs in their sidebar.

I think you can see how each of these items helps to create an immediate impression on browsers who discover your blog. You’re giving them information about your network, things you like, who has recognized you and what kind of audience you have.

All this will help people to figure out if this is a blog they want to visit, explore, or forget about.

Later in this series we’ll talk about how to use all these elements to make the impression that will advance the aims you have for your author blog.

And I’ll show you step by step how to create your own widgets that can be placed in your sidebar, or given to other bloggers to place in theirs. These placements can have a great effect on your site’s search engine ranking and traffic, so watch for it.

Joel Friedlander is a self-published author and book designer who blogs about book design, self-publishing and the indie publishing life at He's also the proprietor of Marin Bookworks, where he helps publishers and authors who decide to publish get to market on time and on budget with books that are both properly constructed and beautiful to read.

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